By MICHAEL MAROT, Associated Press
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Jordan Hulls walks into Assembly Hall wearing a T-shirt that reads "How Sweet It Is," a phrase intended to celebrate Indiana's return to the NCAA tournament regional semifinals last spring.
This fall, those words have a whole new meaning.
After spending three years in the abyss and another year trying to prove themselves, the Hoosiers are ranked No. 1 and squarely in the discussion about the national championship.
Indiana is back. Finally.
"It could be a really special year and everybody is anxious to start seeing what this team is capable of," junior guard Victor Oladipo said with his usual exuberance. "It's the stuff you dream about, trying to chase this one goal that everyone is trying to chase."
Outsiders certainly believe Indiana has the combination to do that this season.
For the first time since 1979-80, and only the third time in school history, the Hoosiers open this season ranked No. 1. Sophomore center Cody Zeller is the early favorite to be the Big Ten player of the year, and the campaigning to make him this year's national player of the year is in full swing, too. Indiana basketball tickets are again one of the hottest items in the state.
Don't believe it?
Eager fans are so excited about this season they filled every seat inside Assembly Hall for an open practice Oct. 20 two hours before it began. Coach Tom Crean apologized to those who were turned away.
"It makes you appreciate winning that much more," said Hulls, a senior guard and one of the team leaders. "But it is kind of crazy to think about how far we've come."
Crean was hired in April 2008 to clean things up after an embarrassing NCAA phone-call scandal tainted the school's pristine image and gutted the roster. He promised to restore the program's image, its national prestige and to win championships with a team that would make everyone proud.
Nobody expected the long road back to be easy, least of all Crean, who had only two returning players, both walk-ons, in that first season.
Crean remembers it well. Indiana crashed to 6-25, losing to the likes of Lipscomb and barely avoided losing to Division II school Chaminade in the seventh-place game at the Maui Invitational. It was ugly.
"We had no leadership that year," Crean said. "You look around pro and college sports, you take the leader out of a business and the business will be affected. Now you take the leadership out of a program, and the players don't have anyone to look up to, nobody who's been through that. We had to grow into that. We could have signed junior college kids, but it wouldn't have made any difference because they hadn't been through Indiana and neither had we."
While Hulls was busy winning the state's 2009 Mr. Basketball Award, he watched disbelievingly as his hometown school tumbled.
When Crean offered him a chance to be part of the solution, Hulls couldn't pass it up.
Crean gave the same sales pitch same everywhere he went: Come to Indiana and you'll get playing time right away, maybe start, become part of something bigger than themselves, earn a degree from a highly-respected institution and forever be known in Hoosiers lore as part of the group that rebuilt Indiana basketball.
"I remember the dark days, and now I see the guys being picked high. The program is back," said shooting guard Maurice Creek, who came to Indiana to help restore the basketball program before three season-ending injuries derailed his career. "We have more pieces than when I first got here."
The struggles continued through Crean's next two seasons as Indiana went 10-21 and 12-20. Doubters began to wonder how long all this would take.
The Hoosiers answered that challenge with a magical 2011-12. Indiana won 15 more games, finishing 27-9 and making their first NCAA tourney under Crean. But it wasn't just the Hoosiers record that got national attention.
On Dec. 10, Christian Watford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-72. Three weeks later, the Hoosiers upset then No. 2 Ohio State 74-70. In February, as No. 5 Michigan State closed in on a Big Ten title, the Hoosiers did it again, soundly beating the Spartans 70-55.